Talking Points

The government is shockingly bad at counting stuff

Political scientists like to talk about and measure "state capacity" —  a government's ability to accomplish policy goals. But before a government can set goals and succeed or fail in achieving them, it must know what's actually happening in the country. Judged by that rudimentary measure, we're falling far short of where we should be.

The truth is, the government is shockingly bad at counting stuff.

As Matthew Yglesias points out in the title of a distressing but illuminating Substack post, "The CDC's vaccine data is all wrong." Examining aggregate data at the national, state, and local level, Yglesias confirms what The Week's Bonnie Kristian reported in July about Pennsylvania's vaccination rates — namely, that the reported numbers at different levels of government don't match, with states reporting lower vaccination rates than national figures and counties reporting lower rates than states.

Why has this happened? Most likely because much of the data has been (in Yglesias' words) "de-identified for privacy purposes," leading to systemic inaccuracy that tends to inflate the number of people receiving vaccine doses. If, for example, I receive my first shot in one municipality, county, or state, my second shot in another, and my booster in a third, I may end up counted as three people receiving their first shots, or one person receiving two shots and a second person receiving a first dose. Without collecting identifying information, there's no way to identify (let alone correct) the accuracy.

It would be one thing — bad but perhaps somewhat understandable — if this problem were entirely a function of the peculiarities and confusions of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Yglesias noted in a post from August, privacy concerns also lead the Census to "deliberately put errors" into our once-in-a-decade effort to take stock of the American population. For other, mysterious reasons, the government is likewise notoriously bad at compiling accurate crime data.

This obviously makes everyone who relies on these inaccurate data (including ordinary citizens, journalists, and specialized scholars) less informed about the reality of American life. But it also makes the government much less effective than it otherwise could be, since it's left groping around in the dark instead of acting on the basis of an accurate overview of what's really happening in the country.  

If we can't get even the most basic and easy stuff right, there's little hope to reverse America's declining state capacity.